Patients Are People like Us by Henri Baruk

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Patients Are People like Us

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Dr. Henri Baruk is a French psychiatrist of international repute. In 1931, he became director of Charenton, France’s venerable national mental hospital whose most famous inmate had been the Marquis de Sade. His predecessors had looked upon this post as a steppingstone to less demanding and more prestigious positions, but he remained for thirty years, even through the Nazi occupation which required that he wear an armband marking him as a Jew.

During his early years at Charenton, Baruk pioneered reforms in the administration of mental hospitals, making Charenton a living example of progressive methods. When he arrived, he found the less tractable patients chained to their beds, mistreatment of patients commonplace, and alcohol readily available to staff and inmates alike. It took him three years not only to correct such practices but to create a climate of positive pride and compassion so that such abuses would not readily reoccur.

Next he established a research laboratory at Charenton. The work done there constituted the beginnings of a revolutionary reorientation in psychiatry. He and his colleagues demonstrated that certain conditions heretofore considered mental illnesses were caused by physical disorders. He isolated specific toxins released in the bloodstream by such conditions as gall stones or coliform infections which could cause catatonia and hysteria. Chemical antidotes such at lithium and scopochloralose were developed which could neutralize these toxins, and thus “cure” mental patients formerly considered hopeless. Diagnosed cases of incurable hysteria were healed in a day. It was indeed a revolution.

With less success, Dr. Baruk early entered the legal arena, attacking laws which could be easily used to circumvent the rights of the mentally ill. Upon release, for example, former patients might find they no longer had any property, possessions, or cash. Patients Are People Like Us contains many uncomfortable accounts of perfectly sound individuals committed by unscrupulous families and spouses for their own ends. Today, at the age of eighty-two, the author continues to fight for just and precise laws on the legal definition of mental illness, as well as for fair processes by which a declaration of insanity can be obtained. Paradoxically, Baruk has found that the biggest stumbling blocks to righting instances of such injustice are the guardians of law and order, from policemen through judges, who argue that it would be detrimental to society to admit their mistakes, since it might cause a loss of public confidence in the law.

Baruk believes that the fundamental truth about man is that he is a mysteriously integrated entity. The body, the conscience, the emotions, the will, and the reason exist in a delicate balance, each affecting the others. To deny one faculty, to exalt one over the other or to damage one part unbalances the human mechanism. Imbalance results in physical impairment, mental impairment, or both. Impairment in turn leads to self-destructive or socially destructive behavior. For Baruk, this unity of the moral, physical, mental, and emotional aspects of man is “the single most striking truth that I have derived from my life and career.” He contends that the recognition of this unity is absent from all scientific and philosophical systems.

This contention is neither entirely true nor entirely untrue. Certain religious thinking, notably Hinduism and Judaism, contains the recognition of the unity and interrelatedness of the human organism; fiction writers from Dostoevski to Dickens have assumed it; and some would contend that the concept is instinctively known by the human mind. Surely few would deny that what we feel is connected with what we do, and that both relate to how our bodies feel and what we think.

Baruk is correct, however, in stating that this unity has never been systematically and scientifically studied. Each discipline, each researcher makes his contribution, but, understandably, synthesis...

(The entire section is 1,136 words.)